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SHADOWS AND FOG

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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Woody Allen, Kathy Bates, John Cusack, Mia Farrow, Jodie Foster, Fred Gwynne, Julie Kavner, Madonna, John Malkovich, Kenneth Mars, Kate Nelligan, Donald Pleasence, Lily Tomlin
Director:  Woody Allen
Audio:  Dolby Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  MGM/UA
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  85 Minutes
Release Date:  June 5, 2001

“It’s your money.   Why give it away?”
“Because I’m ashamed of how I got it.”
“I can’t believe you stole it.”
“I slept with someone for it.  One person.  Does that make me a whore?”
“Only by the dictionary definition…”

Film ***

Shadows and Fog is a strange entry in Woody Allen’s filmography, one that left critics harshly divided and even some of his biggest fans cold.  It is, in some ways, a love letter to the styles of Ingmar Bergman and the great German Expressionists; a film more concerned with visual style than with a clumsy attempt to mix comedy with a paranoid nightmare.  On that level, the picture is interesting enough to succeed.

Allen plays Kleinman, a clerk awakened in the middle of a densely foggy night by a group of vigilantes who want his help in tracking down a serial killer that has the town living in fear.  The killer is given the catchy moniker of The Strangler, though we are told he also slits throats and dispatches victims in other ways as well.

In a script that blends Kafka with Allen’s own style of humor, Kleinman reminded me of The Trial’s Joseph K., in that he is never informed what his part of this “plan” is.  Throughout the film he runs into characters who demand to know what he’s doing there, but his pitiful protests of not knowing what he’s supposed to be doing are never answered!

The traveling circus provides the Bergmanesque touch, with a Clown (a delightfully haughty Malkovich) and his sword swallowing lady, Irmy (Farrow) who may have picked the wrong night to visit, given that the increasingly zealous vigilantes are becoming as dangerous, if not more so, than the killer.   They fight, sending Irmy out into the city where she meets a prostitute (Tomlin), who invites her back to the brothel for a night’s sleep.  This is the film’s best sequence, involving a funny and smart round table discussion by the ladies as a central camera rotates to capture all of their faces, and a hilarious scene with John Cusack as a student who mistakes Irmy for one of the workers!

When Irmy meets up with Kleinman, they seem to share a kindred spirit, despite being worlds apart in reality.  In another memorable scene, she begs him to take her “hooker” money to the church for a donation.  When he goes in, he finds two priests compiling a list with his name on it (which they gladly erase once he hands over the cash.  Later, when an emergency calls for him to ask for some of the money back, his name is reinstated and circled).

The plot is thin, and the identity of the killer inconsequential.  The structure of the film is built around the visuals, not the characters or the story.  With cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, Allen offers his most strikingly photographed film, with a dreamy black and white style and plenty of hazy, backlit fog effects that remind one not only of the likes of F. W. Murnau, but in my opinion, owes something to Josef von Sternberg and his Docks of New York.  The visuals are distinct and create a prominent sense of unease.  Allen’s humor sometimes intervenes, but never quite kill the Kafkaesque sense of foreboding that something horrible is happening and we don’t have a clue what.

Shadows and Fog is definitely an intriguing experiment for Allen, whom many thought went off his creative rocker many years early when he penned his first screen drama, Interiors.  Allen is not an artist who re-invents himself, as some have suggested…rather, he’s the kind of artist who never feels confined, even if fans and critics try to pigeonhole him as a comedian.  His wealth of cinematic knowledge is deep and impressive, and it can be argued that he made this picture only for himself and for die-hard students of cinema.

I consider myself one of the latter, and while Shadows and Fog is far from a perfect film, there is more about it that intrigues than there is that alienates.  Not all audiences will be pleased (nor have they been), but for someone who would like to be immerse in pure cinema that draws from a rich palate of history and takes more than a few risks, I believe this Woody Allen movie just might fit the bill.

Video ***1/2

As mentioned, this is one of the Woodman’s most striking visual offerings, and kudos to MGM/UA for a beautifully realized anamorphic transfer.  Watching this DVD is an enthralling experience, as Allen and Di Palma’s carefully cultivated lighting and shadows create haunting and memorable images scene after scene.  The fog plays beautifully with the outdoor photography, creating some ethereal softness and allowing characters to move from light to silhouette in just a few steps.  The range of grayscale is impressive, though true deep blacks are purposely never employed (to do so would ground the imagery too much).  The print itself is quite clean, and the transfer is free from undue grain, compression, shimmer or other distractions.  Those who love this film will be extremely pleased.

Audio **

As with all Woody Allen films, this picture was mixed with a simple mono soundtrack.  Serviceable, no complaints, but no high praises either.

Features *

Only a trailer.

Summary:

Spend a little time among the Shadows and Fog of Woody Allen’s eccentric, quirky black comedy if you feel adventurous.  While not for the casual moviegoer, or even the casual Woody fan, those with an appreciation for highly visual and stylistic cinema and can recognize the influences that guided this offbeat production will find more to enjoy than to dismiss.